Sweet Will

Sweet Will

by Philip Levine

Paperback(1st ed)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780689115868
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 05/28/1985
Edition description: 1st ed
Pages: 56

About the Author


Fresno, California

Date of Birth:

January 10, 1928

Place of Birth:

Detroit, Michigan


B.A., Wayne State University; M.F.A., Iowa Writers Workshop, University of Iowa

Read an Excerpt

Sweet Will

By Philip Levine

Prairie Lights Books

Copyright © 1985 Philip Levine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9859325-1-0



    Pond snipe, bleached pine, rue weed, wart—
    I walk by sedge and brown river rot
    to where the old lake boats went daily out.
    All the ships are gone, the gray wharf fallen
    in upon itself. Even the channel's
    grown over. Once we set sail here
    for Bob-Lo, the Brewery Isles, Cleveland.
    We would have gone as far as Niagara
    or headed out to open sea if the Captain
    said so, but the Captain drank. Blood-eyed
    in the morning, coffee shaking in his hand,
    he'd plead to be put ashore or drowned,
    but no one heard. Enormous in his long coat,
    Sinbad would take the helm and shout out
    orders swiped from pirate movies. Once
    we docked north of Vermillion to meet
    a single spur of the old Ohio Western
    and sat for days waiting for a train,
    waiting for someone to claim the cargo
    or give us anything to take back,
    like the silver Cadillac roadster
    it was rumored we had once freighted
    by itself. The others went foraging
    and left me with the Captain, locked up
    in the head and sober. Two days passed,
    I counted eighty tankers pulling
    through the flat lake waters on their way,
    I counted blackbirds gathering at dusk
    in the low trees, clustered like bees.
    I counted the hours from noon to noon
    and got nowhere. At last the Captain slept.
    I banked the fire, raised anchor, cast off,
    and jumping ship left her drifting out
    on the black bay. I walked seven miles
    to the Interstate and caught a meat truck
    heading west, and came to over beer,
    hashbrowns, and fried eggs in a cafe
    northwest of Omaha. I could write
    how the radio spoke of war, how
    the century was half its age, how
    dark clouds gathered in the passes
    up ahead, the dispossessed had clogged
    the roads, but none the less I alone
    made my way to the western waters,
    a foreign ship, another life, and disappeared
    from all I'd known. In fact I
    come home every year, I walk the same streets
    where I grew up, but now with my boys.
    I settled down, just as you did, took
    a degree in library sciences,
    and got my present position with
    the county. I'm supposed to believe
    something ended. I'm supposed to be
    dried up. I'm supposed to represent
    a yearning, but I like it the way it is.
    Not once has the ocean wind changed
    and brought the taste of salt
    over the coastal hills and through
    the orchards to my back yard. Not once
    have I wakened cold and scared
    out of a dreamless sleep
    into a dreamless life and cried
    and cried out for what I left behind.


    In Havana in 1948 I ate fried dog
    believing it was Peking duck. Later,
    in Tampa I bunked with an insane sailor
    who kept a .38 Smith and Wesson in his shorts.
    In the same room were twins, oilers
    from Toledo, who argued for hours
    each night whose turn it was
    to get breakfast and should he turn
    the eggs or not. On the way north
    I lived for three days on warm water
    in a DC-6 with a burned out radio
    on the runway at Athens, Georgia. We sang
    a song, "Georgia's Big Behind," and prayed
    for WWIII and complete, unconditional surrender.
    Napping in an open field near Newport News,
    I chewed on grass while the shadows of September
    lengthened; in the distance a man hammered
    on the roof of a hangar and groaned how he
    was out of luck and vittles. Bummed a ride
    in from Mitchell Field and had beet borscht
    and white bread at 34th and 8th Avenue.
    I threw up in the alley behind the YMCA
    and slept until they turned me out.
    I walked the bridge to Brooklyn
    while the East River browned below.
    A mile from Ebbetts Field, from all
    that history, I found Murray, my papa's
    buddy, in his greasy truck shop, polishing
    replacement parts. Short, unshaven, puffed,
    he strutted the filthy aisles,
    a tiny Ghengis Khan. He sent out for soup
    and sandwiches. The world turned on barley,
    pickled meats, yellow mustard, kasha,
    rye breads. It rained in October, rained
    so hard I couldn't walk and smoke, so I
    chewed pepsin chewing gum. The rain
    spoiled Armistice Day in Lancaster, Pa.
    The open cars overflowed, girls cried,
    the tubas and trombones went dumb,
    the floral displays shredded, the gutters
    clogged with petals. Afterwards had ham
    on buttered whole-wheat bread, ham
    and butter for the first time
    on the same day in Zanesville with snow
    forecast, snow, high winds, closed roads,
    solid darkness before 5 p.m. These were not
    the labors of Hercules, these were not
    of meat or moment to anyone but me
    or destined for story or to learn from
    or to make me fit to take the hand
    of a toad or a toad princess or to stand
    in line for food stamps. One quiet morning
    at the end of my thirteenth year a little bird
    with a dark head and tattered tail feathers
    had come to the bedroom window and commanded
    me to pass through the winding miles
    of narrow dark corridors and passageways
    of my growing body the filth and glory
    of the palatable world. Since then I've
    been going out and coming back
    the way a swallow does with unerring grace
    and foreknowledge because all of this
    was prophesied in the final, unread book
    of the Midrash and because I have to
    grow up and because it pleases me.


    The sun came up before breakfast,
    perfectly round and yellow, and we
    dressed in the soft light and shook out
    our long blond curls and waited
    for Maid to brush them flat and place
    the part just where it belonged.
    We came down the carpeted stairs
    one step at a time, in single file,
    gleaming in our sailor suits, two
    four year olds with unscratched knees
    and scrubbed teeth. Breakfast came
    on silver dishes with silver covers
    and was set in table center, and Mother
    handed out the portions of eggs
    and bacon, toast and juice. We could
    hear the ocean, not far off, and boats
    firing up their engines, and the shouts
    of couples in white on the tennis courts.
    I thought, Yes, this is the beginning
    of another summer, and it will go on
    until the sun tires of us or the moon
    rises in its place on a silvered dawn
    and no one wakens. My brother flung
    his fork on the polished wooden floor
    and cried out, "My eggs are cold, cold!"
    and turned his plate over. I laughed
    out loud, and Mother slapped my face,
    and when I cleared my eyes the table
    was bare of even a simple white cloth,
    and the steaming plates had vanished.
    My brother said, "It's time," and we
    struggled into our galoshes and snapped
    them up, slumped into our pea coats,
    one year older now and on our way
    to the top through the freezing rains
    of the end of November, lunch boxes
    under our arms, tight fists pocketed,
    out the door and down the front stoop,
    heads bent low, tacking into the wind.


    A single stalk climbed up
    to my window to hold out
    its long white bud. Late March
    under a slow sky, the alder
    shudders in the west wind
    and stills, even the jays
    have quieted.
    just after dawn, I found
    my tall son John working
    the garden paths. Unable
    to sleep he had come home
    on foot through the dark town
    to take up the shovel
    and the hoe.
    Now the rain
    dances on the shed roof, bows
    down the wild asparagus,
    and blackens the earth. If I
    wakened in the stillness
    of this afternoon, I'd find
    a blue sky and the iris
    beaten open into blossom.


    The first purple wisteria
    I recall from boyhood hung
    on a wire outside the windows
    of the breakfast room next door
    at the home of Steve Pisaris.
    I loved his tall, skinny daughter,
    or so I thought, and I would wait
    beside the back door, prostrate,
    begging to be taken in. Perhaps
    it was only the flowers of spring
    with their sickening perfumes
    that had infected me. When Steve
    and Sophie and the three children
    packed up and made the move west,
    I went on spring after spring,
    leaden with desire, half-asleep,
    praying to die. Now I know
    those prayers were answered.
    That boy died, the brick houses
    deepened and darkened with rain,
    age, use, and finally closed
    their eyes and dreamed the sleep
    of California. I learned this
    only today. Wakened early
    in an empty house not lately
    battered by storms, I looked
    for nothing. On the surface
    of the rain barrel, the paled,
    shredded blossoms floated.


    The low-built houses of the poor
    were all around him, and it
    was dawn now, and he was more
    awake than not. So it is
    a young man begins his life.
    Someone, probably his brother,
    has quietly closed the front
    door, and he feels a sudden gust
    of cold air and opens his eyes.
    Through the uncurtained window
    the great factory sulks in gray
    light, there where his mother
    must be finishing the night,
    her arms crossed and immersed
    in the deep, milky washbasin,
    those long and slender arms
    that seem to him as hard
    and drawn as a man's, and
    now she would be smiling
    with one eye closed and blurred
    by the first cigarette in hours.
    He sits up and lights his first
    too and draws the smoke in
    as deeply as he can and feels
    his long nakedness stretched
    out before him, filling the bed
    now grown too small for him.
    They will pass, mother and son,
    on the street, and he will hold
    her straight, taut body for
    a moment and smell the grease
    in her hair and touch her lips
    with his, and today he will not
    wonder why the tears start and
    stall in her eyes and in his.
    Today for the first time in
    his life he will let his hands
    stray across her padded back
    and shoulders, feeling them
    give and then hold, and he will
    not say one word, not mother
    or Ruth or goodbye. If you
    are awake in the poor light
    of this November, have a look
    down at the street that leads
    the way you too will have soon
    to take. Do you see them there
    stopped in each others' arms,
    these two who love each other?
    Go ahead and look! You wanted
    to live as much as they did,
    you asked the day to start,
    and the day started, but not
    because you asked. Forward
    or back, they've got no place
    to go. No one's blaming you.


    The day comes slowly in the railyard
    behind the ice factory. It broods on
    one cinder after another until each
    glows like lead or the eye of a dog
    possessed of no inner fire, the brown
    and greasy pointer who raises his muzzle
    a moment and sighing lets it thud
    down on the loading dock. In no time
    the day has crossed two sets of tracks,
    a semi-trailer with no tractor, and crawled
    down three stories of the bottling plant
    at the end of the alley. It is now
    less than five hours until mid-day
    when nothing will be left in doubt,
    each scrap of news, each banished carton,
    each forgotten letter, its ink bled of lies,
    will stare back at the one eye that sees
    it all and never blinks. But for now
    there is water settling in a clean glass
    on the shelf beside the razor, the slap
    of bare feet on the floor above. Soon
    the scent of rivers borne across roof
    after roof by winds without names,
    the aroma of opened beds better left
    closed, of mouths without teeth, of light
    rustling among the mice droppings
    at the back of a bin of potatoes.

    * * *

    The old man who sleeps among the cases
    of empty bottles in a little nest of rags
    and newspapers at the back of the plant
    is not an old man. He is twenty years
    younger than I am now putting this down
    in permanent ink on a yellow legal pad
    during a crisp morning in October.
    When he fell from a high pallet, his sleeve
    caught on a nail and spread his arms
    like a figure out of myth. His head
    tore open on a spear of wood, and he
    swore in French. No, he didn't want
    a doctor. He wanted toilet paper
    and a drink, which were fetched. He used
    the tiny bottle of whisky to straighten
    out his eyes and the toilet paper to clean
    his pants, fouled in the fall, and he did
    both with seven teenage boys looking on
    in wonder and fear. At last the blood
    slowed and caked above his ear, and he
    never once touched the wound. Instead,
    in a voice no one could hear, he spoke
    to himself, probably in French, and smoked
    sitting back against a pallet, his legs
    thrust out on the damp cement floor.

    * * *

    In his white coveralls, crisp and pressed,
    Teddy the Polack told us a fat tit
    would stop a toothache, two a headache.
    He told it to anyone who asked, and grinned—
    the small eyes watering at the corners—
    as Alcibiades might have grinned
    when at last he learned that love leads
    even the body beloved to a moment
    in the present when desire calms, the skin
    glows, the soul takes the light of day,
    even a working day in 1944.
    For Baharozian at seventeen the present
    was a gift. Seeing my ashen face,
    the cold sweats starting, he seated me
    in a corner of the boxcar and did
    both our jobs, stacking the full cases
    neatly row upon row and whistling
    the songs of Kate Smith. In the bathroom
    that night I posed naked before the mirror,
    the new cross of hair staining my chest,
    plunging to my groin. That was Wednesday,
    for every Wednesday ended in darkness.

    * * *

    One of those teenage boys was my brother.
    That night as we lay in bed, the lights
    out, we spoke of Froggy, of how at first
    we thought he would die and how little
    he seemed to care as the blood rose
    to fill and overflow his ear. Slowly
    the long day came over us and our breath
    quieted and eased at last, and we slept.
    When I close my eyes now his bare legs
    glow before me again, pure and lovely
    in their perfect whiteness, the buttocks
    dimpled and firm. I see again the rope
    of his sex, unwrinkled, flushed and swaying,
    the hard flat belly as he raises his shirt
    to clean himself. He gazes at no one
    or nothing, but seems instead to look off
    into a darkness I hadn't seen, a pool
    of shadow that forms before his eyes,
    in my memory now as solid as onyx.

    * * *

    I began this poem in the present
    because nothing is past. The ice factory,
    the bottling plant, the cindered yard
    all gave way to a low brick building
    a block wide and windowless where they
    designed gun mounts for personnel carriers
    that never made it to Korea. My brother
    rises early, and on clear days he walks
    to the corner to have toast and coffee.
    Seventeen winters have melted into an earth
    of stone, bottle caps, and old iron to carry
    off the hard remains of Froggy Frenchman
    without a blessing or a stone to bear it.
    A little spar of him the size of a finger,
    pointed and speckled as though blood-flaked,
    washed ashore from Lake Erie near Buffalo
    before the rest slipped down the falls out
    into the St. Lawrence. He could be at sea,
    he could be part of an ocean, by now
    he could even be home. This morning I
    rose later than usual in a great house
    full of sunlight, but I believe it came
    down step by step on each wet sheet
    of wooden siding before it crawled
    from the ceiling and touched my pillow
    to waken me. When I heave myself
    out of this chair with a great groan of age
    and stand shakily, the three mice still
    in the wall. From across the lots
    the wind brings voices I can't make out,
    scraps of song or sea sounds, daylight
    breaking into dust, the perfume of waiting
    rain, of onions and potatoes frying.


    The man who stood beside me
    34 years ago this night fell
    on to the concrete, oily floor
    of Detroit Transmission, and we
    stepped carefully over him until
    he wakened and went back to his press.

    It was Friday night, and the others
    told me that every Friday he drank
    more than he could hold and fell
    and he wasn't any dumber for it
    so just let him get up at his
    own sweet will or he'll hit you.

    "At his own sweet will," was just
    what the old black man said to me,
    and he smiled the smile of one
    who is still surprised that dawn
    graying the cracked and broken windows
    could start us all to singing in the cold.

    Stash rose and wiped the back of his head
    with a crumpled handkerchief and looked
    at his own blood as though it were
    dirt and puzzled as to how
    it got there and then wiped the ends
    of his fingers carefully one at a time

    the way the mother wipes the fingers
    of a sleeping child, and climbed back
    on his wooden soda-pop case to
    his punch press and hollered at all
    of us over the oceanic roar of work,
    addressing us by our names and nations—

    "Nigger, Kike, Hunky, River Rat,"
    but he gave it a tune, an old tune,
    like "America the Beautiful." And he danced
    a little two-step and smiled showing
    the four stained teeth left in the front
    and took another suck of cherry brandy.

    In truth it was no longer Friday,
    for night had turned to day as it
    often does for those who are patient,
    so it was Saturday in the year of '48
    in the very heart of the city of man
    where your Cadillac cars get manufactured.

    In truth all those people are dead,
    they have gone up to heaven singing
    "Time on My Hands" or "Begin the Beguine,"
    and the Cadillacs have all gone back
    to earth, and nothing that we made
    that night is worth more than me.

    And in truth I'm not worth a thing
    what with my feet and my two bad eyes
    and my one long nose and my breath
    of old lies and my sad tales of men
    who let the earth break them back,
    each one, to dirty blood or bloody dirt.

    Not worth a thing! Just like it was said
    at my magic birth when the stars
    collided and fire fell from great space
    into great space, and people rose one
    by one from cold beds to tend a world
    that runs on and on at its own sweet will.


Excerpted from Sweet Will by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1985 Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Prairie Lights Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Salts and Oils,
Those Were the Days,
The White Iris,
The Present,
Sweet Will,
A Poem With No Ending,
An Ending,
Late Light,
The House,
Last Words,
An Ordinary Morning,
Jewish Graveyards, Italy,

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